Skip to content

Hey WSJ – Content Marketing Is NOT Native Advertising

14629100863_919cd54697_oDisclaimer: This is one of those “inside baseball” posts. It is also devoid of any helpful how-to information (as we’ve become known for at CMI). I wrote this post because I believe it needs to be said. So there.

Update 11/7/2014 – I had a wonderful chat with the writer from the Wall Street Journal this morning regarding clarification on content marketing versus native advertising.  Just wanted to commend her on following through to try to clarify her definition of content marketing. 

Warning … rant alert!

When Amanda Subler, CMI’s media relations lead, notified us that The Wall Street Journal picked up our latest research findings, I was pretty psyched. I mean, it’s the WSJ. Plus, the research is a content marketing initiative that led directly to earned media.

And then I read the following excerpt:

“Investments in content marketing – in which brands create content that is closely integrated with editorial content on publisher sites – have been on the rise for many advertisers looking to reach consumers in a less intrusive way compared to other online ad formats.”

Please go back and read that middle part again. No, wait … read it here:

“… in which brands create content that is closely integrated with editorial content on publisher sites …”

Oh no, she didn’t. Yes, that’s right, the author of this article used a quasi-native advertising definition and called it content marketing. Why is it that so many traditional publishers and journalists think that brands can’t possibly create their own content that … (wait for it) … could possibly live on a platform not owned by a traditional media company?

This is content marketing

Content marketing is a strategic marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

The purpose of content marketing is to attract and retain customers by consistently creating and curating relevant and valuable content with the intention of changing or enhancing consumer behavior. It is an ongoing process that is best integrated into your overall marketing strategy, and it focuses on owning media, not renting it.

In content marketing, you own the media. It’s your asset. In native advertising, you are paying someone else to distribute and (ultimately) own your content.

This is native advertising

Note: There are many types of native advertising (you can find them here). For this conversation, I’m talking about the type of native advertising where long-form content is placed on media sites. The Interactive Advertising Bureau created a Native Advertising Playbook that has six categories of consideration. It’s a worthy document, but to simplify its definition, native advertising is:

  • A directly paid opportunity. I hate to bring out the obvious, but native advertising is “pay to play.” If a brand or individual did not pay for the spot, it’s not native advertising. Although brands may choose to promote their content by paying for visibility, content marketing is not advertising. You do not pay to create or curate content to your own platform. If you are, you should stop that right now.
  • Usually content based. The information is useful, interesting, and highly targeted to the specific readership. So, in all likelihood, it’s not an advertisement promoting the company’s product or service directly. This is where native advertising looks a bit like content marketing. The information is usually highly targeted (hopefully) and positioned as valuable, or similar to the value of the “real” content on the publisher’s site. But again, in native advertising, you are renting someone else’s content asset (just like advertising), except that you aren’t pimping a product or service. 
  • Delivered in stream. To truly be a native ad, the user experience is not disrupted. The advertising is delivered in a way that does not impede the normal behavior of the user in that particular channel. The brand that buys the native advertising placement wants its content to look as similar as possible to the site’s content. The media company wants that too (because it’s easier for the salespeople to sell it,) but it also has to put out a multitude of warning labels around the content to make sure there is 100% transparency. The Federal Trade Commission is currently not going to get involved with any native-advertising guidelines in the hope that the industry will self-police.

Again, the goal of native advertising (at least for definition purposes) is to not disrupt the user experience … to offer information that is somewhat helpful and similar to the other information on the site so that users engage with the content at a higher rate than, say, a banner ad (this is good for advertisers, and if the content is truly useful, good for consumers.)

I’m not a native advertising hater. If I was a brand, I’d be jumping into these opportunities to steal audience from publishers. I also believe that for many publishers, native advertising is a short-term offering. Publishers like Buzzfeed can do native advertising all day long, while it’s much harder for brands like The Wall Street Journal.

Can native advertising and content marketing work together?

Actually, the two should work together. As you develop your content marketing program, you’ll get to a portion of the content marketing framework called audience. Simply put, you may not have enough audience to drive your content program. Native advertising is a great way to (legally) steal audience and work to drive it to your owned content marketing platform.

You may also just be using native advertising around traditional advertising goals, like awareness or intent, which is just fine but may not necessarily integrate with your content program.

So, to sum up, native advertising is paid. The content for native advertising occurs on the platform you are paying. We good? WSJ?

If you’d like to learn all about native advertising, see the Ultimate Guide to Native Advertising.

Want to read more insight and helpful information from CMI’s founder? Secure a copy of his book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break through the Clutter, & Win More Customers by Marketing Less.

Cover image by George Hodan,, via pixabay